Legal immunity for veterinarians who report animal/domestic abuse

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We want states to provide legal protection for veterinarians who report suspected animal abuse, neglect, cruelty and possible domestic violence links to local law enforcement. There are currently four states who have mandatory reporting for such cases, but do not provide legal immunity to the veterinarians reporting suspected animal abuse. 

According to the Animal Legal Defense Fund (2017), abusers of animals are five times as likely to harm human victims. Victim entering shelters often report their abuser has harmed, killed, or threatened to harm and/or kill family animals. These threats of harm or actual harm to pets are tactics utilized by the abusers to manipulate their victims in a manner that helps him or her maintain power and control. More than half of domestic abuse victims who stay in violent households do so because they are afraid that their abuser will harm or kill their pets. Many shelters do not accommodate or accept animals from current owners, and often, boarding fees at veterinarian offices or kennels are too expensive.

However, over the past several decades, there has been more awareness about the link between animal abuse and domestic abuse, and the importance of family pets. There are several networks that participate in “safe haven” program, which are able to assist domestic violence victims with finding a safe place for their pets while they “seek safety for themselves.” One such network is the Animal Welfare Institute Safe Haven Program, which resources in almost all 50 states. Other programs, such as RedRover.org, also provide a safe haven network as well grants to help pay any kennel or vet fees victims of domestic abuse might have to pay (Animal Welfare Institute, 2017).

In addition, there have been legal advancements made in protecting animal victims of domestic abuse. Thirty-three states, as well as the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, have laws that allow for the inclusion of family pets on domestic protection orders.  While establishing ownership can be challenging and may require legal assistance, there are several programs that help pay for these legal fees.

Other states have made the punishment for animal cruelty in the form of a felony penalty, which carries a much harsher sentence. In contrast, most domestic abuse charges are prosecuted as misdemeanors, which are usually defined as a crime which is punishable with up to a year in jail, and can be more flexible on how they are punished. Felonies are usually defined as crimes that are punishable by more than one year in jail and are crimes that are viewed severely by society. Felonies are subjected to the “three strikes” law, which has taken effect in 28 states (“Three Strikes Law,” 2017). Prosecuting animal cruelty charges as felonies signifies that offenders will less likely repeat the abuse; if they do continue this behavior, the punishment is far more severe.

Currently 32 out of 50 states in the United States have reporting laws pertaining to alleged/tangible evidence of animal abuse. These laws consist of reporting the abuse to the appropriate local authorities. While not all of the thirty-one states require veterinarians to report suspected/actual abuse, they do give veterinarians the ability to break animal doctor-patient confidentiality and report to local authorities. A number of the thirty-one states also include immunity clauses in their reporting laws to protect veterinarians from civil and criminal liability that might arise from reporting the abuse. Some states, like Kansas and Oklahoma, even include provisions that call for disciplinary action against veterinarians who do not report abuse or suspected abuse.

While many states do have reporting laws pertaining to alleged or verified animal abuse, many veterinarians are wary of reporting such instances. Many vets are unsure that they would be able to recognize the signs of abuse, and are fearful of breaking patient confidentiality due to the possibility of losing one’s license to practice veterinary medicine. Veterinarians may also be unsure of who to contact in the local law enforcement community about the suspected abuse, and whether or not the report will be followed up (Wisch, 2017).  

All things considered, it is clear that our local communities should adjust and improve education across all veterinary facilities in terms of how employees are protected under state law, what liabilities (if any) they might face, and who they would need to contact in the local law enforcement in order to report alleged or actual abuse. Follow-up with the veterinarians by the local law enforcement community would also go a long way to ease the fears of veterinarians about reporting such cases.



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Rebecca, Michael, Kristen and Mariah @ Georgetown University needs your help with “Tammy Baldwin: Legal immunity for veterinarians who report animal/domestic abuse”. Join Rebecca, Michael, Kristen and Mariah and 528 supporters today.